When Vermont writer E. Annie Proulx first visited Newfoundland in the mid-1980s, she was searching for new rivers and lakes in which to dip her canoe paddle. “The moment I arrived I experienced this visceral feeling,” she told Maclean’s, speaking by phone from her small, book-filled house situated on 17 acres of Vermont hillside. “Newfoundland was meaningful to me in a very profound way which I can’t really explain.” Well, she certainly took a decent stab at it in The Shipping News (Maxwell Macmillan, $25.50), her moving, witty novel about an American newspaperman who experiences a similar epiphany in Newfoundland. Earlier this year, it won an American National Book Award and The Irish Times International Prize for fiction. And last week, it captured another honor—the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Proulx’s roots in Canada—and particularly the Maritime provinces—run deep. Her paternal great-grandfather came from Quebec. While she was growing up, her family made repeated trips to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In her 30s, she lived in St. Albans, Vt., just over an hour from Montreal, where she completed her MA in history and worked towards a PhD at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia). And during 19 years of freelance journalism, Proulx—a divorced mother of three sons—returned to Atlantic Canada whenever she could find an assignment or an excuse.
The pull from Newfoundland was even stronger. The author, now 58, was captivated by the island’s stark, brooding landscape and the colorful language, which she calls “the most expressive in the world.” At the same time, she found the province to be a place in constant change and turmoil. ‘The 21st century,” says Proulx, “hangs over Newfoundland like a clenched fist.”
The artist in her seems drawn to communities facing extinction.
Proulx’s 1988 collection, Heart Songs and Other Stories, was set amid the dispossessed New England working class. And her first novel, Postcards, which won the 1993 Penn/Faulkner Award for fiction, was about a family of New England farmers struggling against the forces of the 20th century.
In that regard, Newfoundland was nothing new. Proulx made the protagonist in her latest book a reporter named Quoyle—“head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back”—for the simple reason that she could think of no other way for a person to make a living in the province’s blighted economy. Accompanied by his aunt and daughters, he moves to the outport Killick-Claw, a pastiche of places on the island’s northern peninsula that Proulx has visited over the years. Does she fear for the future of the outports that inspired her? “The historian in me is saddened that a way of life is disappearing forever,” she says. “But life is about change; you can’t hide from it.” Through The Shipping News, though, Proulx has managed to bring the beauty and heartbreak of Newfoundland to the world.
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